Prelude to the Battle of Chancellorsville
Following yet another decisive Union defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862), and General Ambrose Burnside’s failed January “Mud March”, President Abraham Lincoln was again searching for someone to lead his Federal forces to victory in the East. On January 25, 1863, Lincoln drafted General Orders, No. 20 (U.S. War Department) announcing that Major General Joseph Hooker was replacing Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. “Fighting Joe” Hooker had a reputation for hard living and hard fighting. Hooker quickly set about reorganizing the Army of the Potomac and improving discipline and general living conditions for his troops. By the spring of 1863, Hooker had restored morale within the army and he was ready to confront Robert E. Lee’s seemingly invincible Army of Northern Virginia.
Wishing to avoid another costly head-on encounter near Fredericksburg, where the bulk of Lee’s forces spent the winter, Hooker devised a plan to draw Lee away from his entrenchments and defeat him on grounds more favorable to the Federals.
On April 27, 1863, Hooker put his plan into action. He issued orders deploying Major General John Sedgwick’s 6th Corps, Major General John Reynolds’ 1st Corps, and Major General Daniel Sickles’ 3rd Corps to the area across the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg. Hooker instructed Sedgwick and the other corps commanders to “put themselves in position to cross the river” when ordered to do so.
Meanwhile, Hooker marched the right-wing of his 130,000-man army up the Rappahannock River (west) past its confluence with the Rapidan River. He intended to cross both rivers, outflank Lee, and get behind his army.
At dawn on April 30, 1863, Sedgwick’s forces crossed the Rappahannock River below Fredericksburg with orders “to make a demonstration in force . . . to let it be as severe as possible without being an attack; to assume a threatening attitude, and maintain it until further orders.”
Designed to pin down Lee’s army, Sedgwick’s diversionary attack enabled Hooker’s main force to cross the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers west of Fredericksburg. Entering an area of nearly impenetrable thickets and bogs named The Wilderness, Major General George G. Meade’s 5th Corps led the Union force east toward the junction of the Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road, which locals referred to as Chancellorsville. At the intersection was the Chancellor family home, which in earlier years served as an inn for travelers. When Hooker arrived that evening, he established his headquarters in the former inn and concentrated his army on the site. With over 54,000 Federal troops behind Lee’s Fredericksburg defenses and 40,000 soldiers in front of them, Hooker had the Confederate army in a vise.
When Lee grasped his predicament, he made the risky decision to divide his army and confront Hooker’s army on two fronts. Gambling that Sedgwick’s river crossing near Fredericksburg was a diversion, Lee left Major General Jubal Early in charge of 12,000 soldiers to protect his right flank. He then gathered the rest of his army and moved west to confront Hooker at Chancellorsville.
At 3 a.m. on Friday morning, May 1, 1863, Confederate Lieutenant General Thomas J. Jackson’s 2nd Corps left Fredericksburg and marched westward toward Chancellorsville. About five hours later, they arrived at the Zoan Church Ridge where Major General Richard Anderson’s Division and Major General Lafayette McLaws’ Division had been entrenching under orders from Lee the day before. Upon his arrival, Jackson ordered the Confederate defenders to abandon their shovels and prepare to go on the offensive.
Meanwhile, Hooker’s Federal forces headed eastward at about 8 a.m. intent on escaping the confines of The Wilderness. Hooker believed that once his army was on open ground where it could maneuver, Lee would abandon his defenses around Fredericksburg and retreat southward rather than risk a major conflict with a vastly numerically superior force.
Lee and Jackson had no intention of retreating. Instead, they seized the initiative and moved west along the two main corridors into the Wilderness, the Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road, to confront Hooker before he could escape into the open.
At roughly 11 a.m., the two armies collided between Chancellorsville and the Zoan Church Ridge on both the Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road. The conflict lasted about three hours. Jackson’s soldiers determined the outcome of the battle when they outflanked the Union right. Upon learning that the Confederates had turned his line, Fighting Joe lost his resolve and order his forces to fall back to Chancellorsville, much to the dismay of his corps commanders. General Meade, whose 5th Corps had made the most progress toward securing the high ground at Zoan Church Ridge, reportedly lamented, “My God, if we can’t hold the top of the hill, we certainly can’t hold the bottom of it!”
As the sun set that evening, Lee and Jackson met at the intersection of Orange Plank Road and Furnace Road to design a strategy for the next day. Ruminating over a campfire well into the night, the two generals hatched a plan that was even more daring than the one they had just executed. Lee would once again split his already divided army, sending Jackson’s 2nd Corps on a covert march around Hooker’s right flank, leaving just two divisions to Hooker’s front to forestall any attempt by Hooker’s powerful army to break out of The Wilderness.
At roughly 8 a.m. on the morning of May 2, 1863, nearly 30,000 soldiers left the Confederate lines in front of Chancellorsville and struck out to the south and then west, advancing along primitive wagon trails and country lanes through The Wilderness. Throughout the day, Lee covered Jackson’s journey by ordering the two divisions left behind to start skirmishes along Hooker’s front, designed to convince the Union commander that he still faced a formidable foe.
Covering about two miles per hour, Jackson’s march did not go undetected. Several times, Federal soldiers spotted the Confederates through gaps in the thickets. One officer, Major General Daniel Sickles, even sent out an infantry patrol that intercepted Jackson’s rearguard near the Catharine Iron Furnace. After sustaining some losses, the Confederates drove the Union troops off and Sickles chose not to continue the pursuit. Responding to further accounts that Confederates were active on his right flank, Hooker brushed off the reports as evidence that the enemy was retreating, as he had expected.
After about six hours of marching, the vanguard of Jackson’s column arrived opposite Hooker’s unprotected flank at roughly 2 p.m. Jackson spent the next three hours organizing his soldiers into three successive battle lines overlapping the Orange Turnpike. When Jackson’s men completed their preparations, somewhere near 5:30 p.m., Jackson asked Robert Rodes, commander of the first line, “General, are you ready?” When Rodes nodded, Jackson replied, “You may go forward then.” Rodes then signaled Major Eugene Blackford who ordered his bugler to sound the charge, starting one of the more overwhelming onslaughts of the Civil War.
As the men of Union Major General Oliver O. Howard’s 11th Corps settled down to prepare their evening meal with their arms stacked, streams of small game began emerging from the nearby forest. Immediately behind the frightened animals, a surge of Confederate soldiers burst from the trees like a thunderstorm screaming the famous Rebel Yell. The startled Union forces abandoned everything and ran for their lives. Only darkness and the loss of unit cohesion put an end to the Confederate blitz after driving Howard’s men two miles back toward Chancellorsville.
Stonewall Jackson’s Death
A strikingly improbable mishap soon put a damper on the overwhelming Confederate. Eager to cut off his enemy’s escape, Jackson led a reconnaissance mission of nine men into the thickets in front of his lines after dark. When spooked members of the 18th North Carolina regiment mistook his party for Union soldiers, they opened fire into the dense cover. Because Jackson’s group was at the extent of the range of the Tar Heels’ smoothbore muskets, only five of their musket balls passed through the heavy undergrowth in the darkness and found human targets. Remarkably, three of the five struck Jackson—two in his left arm and one in his right hand. After doctors later amputated the damaged arm, they evacuated Jackson to a local plantation where he developed pneumonia and died on May 10. Reportedly, on the night that Lee learned of Jackson’s death, he said, “I have lost my right arm and I’m bleeding at the heart.”
In the wake of Jackson’s debilitating injuries, the next highest-ranking officer, Major General A. P. Hill, should have assumed command of the 2nd Corps. Remarkably, Hill had experienced a freak accident the same night that left him temporarily unable to ride a horse. With Hill unavailable, the mantle of leadership devolved to the next highest officer in seniority, Brigadier General Robert E. Rodes who was commanding Major General D. H. Hill’s Division. Rodes demurred, however, because prior to the current engagement, he had never commanded more than a brigade. After consulting with A. P. Hill, Rodes sent a courier to summon Major General J. E. B. Stuart, commander of the army’s Cavalry Corps, requesting him to assume command of the 2nd Corps in Jackson’s absence. Without hesitation, the sometimes brash and always self-confident cavalry leader accepted. That night, without Jackson’s counsel and unable to contact Lee, Stuart correctly determined that his paramount aim for the following day was to reunite his forces with Lee.
Despite the overwhelming Confederate success on May 2, on Sunday, May 3, Federal artillerists still controlled a high open sector amid the thickets known as Hazel Grove. Stuart quickly recognized this threat to his new command, while Hooker did not grasp its importance. Making his first critical directive as a corps commander, Stuart ordered General James J. Archer’s Brigade to “take Hazel Grove.”
Shortly after dawn, roughly 1,500 Confederates surged up the slopes of Hazel Grove to discover the Federals in abandoning the key position under Hooker’s orders. After capturing four pieces of artillery and about 100 prisoners, the Confederates quickly installed their own batteries on the hill, creating a clear field of fire upon Hooker’s army. By 7 a.m., the Confederate cannoneers were raining shells on the Federals in and around Chancellorsville.
Under the cover of the heavy artillery fire, Confederate infantrymen swarmed into the surrounding woods and captured Hooker’s main artillery position at Fairview. The Confederate artillerists quickly moved their batteries to Fairview, dooming any Union hopes of maintaining control of the intersection at Chancellorsville.
While Stuart’s 2nd Corps moved east toward Hooker’s headquarters at Chancellorsville, the 1st Corps under Lee’s direct command shed its role as a diversion and moved in from the east. As the Confederates closed in, the Federals fought desperately as they fell back. For some wounded soldiers on each side, the fighting became horrific when the surrounding cover caught fire, burning them to death.
Despite his perilous situation, Hooker still had options that might have changed the results of the battle. In Stuart’s haste to get to Chancellorsville and reunite with Lee, he exposed his corps to a flank attack from Meade’s 5th Corps and Reynolds’ 1st Corps to his north. Likewise, the right flank of Lee’s smaller force was vulnerable to attack from Couch’s 2nd Corps. Hooker disregarded pleas from his corps commanders to throw their soldiers into the fight and use the Union’s huge numerical advantage.
Critics often attribute Hooker’s timidity to a head injury he received as the battle raged around him that morning. At roughly 9:15, a Confederate artillery shell hurtled into a wooden pillar against which the general was leaning at his headquarters. The impact shattered the colonnade and rendered Hooker unconscious for up to half an hour. Upon regaining his senses, the dazed general displayed symptoms of a concussion, but he refused to relinquish command of the army. Instead, Fighting Joe lost his nerve. He abandoned the Chancellorsville intersection and moved his headquarters a half-mile behind his lines, where he began contemplating halting the campaign. Major General Abner Doubleday (who would earn fame at Gettysburg in July) later observed with disgust that “37,000 men were kept out of the fight, most of whom had not fired a shot, and all of whom were eager to go in.”
By 10 a.m., Robert E. Lee later reported, “we were in full possession of the field.” As the triumphant general approached the intersection astride his horse, Traveller, Confederate soldiers “rent the air with their cheers … and pushed forward more rapidly, waving their hats on high and calling his name.” Lee had little time to savor the accolades, however. Word soon reached him that Sedgwick’s troops had broken through Jubal Early’s defenses back at Fredericksburg.
Lee responded to the latest crisis by dispatching Cadmus M. Wilcox and his Alabama brigade eastward over Orange Plank Road to block Sedgwick’s advance. By 3:30 that afternoon, the Confederates arrived at Salem Church and stymied the Federal advance in a pitched clash along the Salem Church Ridge that forced Sedgwick to retreat toward Fredericksburg.
On May 4, 1863, Lee returned to Fredericksburg to help Early deal with Sedgwick, who had hunkered down in a strong defensive position west of town. Despite a series of frustrating delays, Lee and Early doggedly pushed forward against the Federals from three sides and pushed them across the Rappahannock River. By the early morning of May 5, Lee could boast to Confederate President Jefferson Davis that “We have reoccupied Fredericksburg.”
As Lee confronted Sedgwick’s troops near Fredericksburg on May 4, Hooker remained in a defensive posture, passing up the opportunity to advance and crush Lee between the two wings of his still numerically superior army. When Hooker learned of Sedgwick’s retreat, he called a council of war with his corps commanders near Chancellorsville to determine their course of action. A majority voted to stay and fight, citing the opportunity for the still numerically superior Federal army to defeat Lee’s divided forces. Spurning their advice, Fighting Joe opted to retreat, prompting John Reynolds (who would die three months later at Gettysburg) to grumble, “What was the use of calling us together when he intended to retreat anyhow?”
Retreat they did. With Meade’s 5th Corps serving as the rear guard, the dispirited Army of the Potomac recrossed the Rappahannock River concluding another failed campaign against the seemingly invincible Army of Northern Virginia.
Outcome of the Battle of Chancellorsville
Despite being vastly outnumbered (133,000 to 61,000), Lee had achieved an amazing victory, but at a high cost. The Confederates inflicted a higher number of casualties on the Federals (17,000 to 13,000), but they suffered a higher percentage of losses. In addition, losing Stonewall Jackson was devastating. The victory may have enhanced the perception that the Army of Northern Virginia was invincible, contributing to Lee’s decision to launch a second invasion of the North in June. That mindset may have been a major factor in the army’s undoing at the Battle of Gettysburg in July.
On the Union side, despite President Lincoln’s disenchantment with Hooker’s performance at Chancellorsville, the vanquished general remained in command of the Army of the Potomac during the initial stages of the Gettysburg Campaign. On June 27, 1863, Hooker attended a strategy meeting with the President and General-in-chief Henry W. Halleck. When a dispute arose regarding the disposition of troops at Harpers Ferry, Hooker impulsively offered to resign his command. Lincoln quickly accepted the resignation and had Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton issue General Orders, No. 194 (U.S. War Department) placing George Meade in command of the Army of the Potomac just four days before the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg.